This picture was taken at Preston Manor on 31 October 2007 and shows the arrival of a ghost tour guide ready to escort her group around the famously haunted house and scare the wits out of them in the process. But what skills do you need to be a ghost tour guide?
I like this image because it captures a moment of mystery and anticipation of horror ahead. It also shows a small corner of the house down in the basement level where all glitz and grandeur have been left behind and you are dropped into a bleak place of worn flagstone floors and ancient wooden doors concealing soot-pitted recesses in which phantoms might lurk.
Between September 2006 and October 2016, I organised and ran 95 ghost events at Preston Manor assisted by a magnificent team of people who know how to tell a great ghost story. The woman in this picture is more usually seen in her post of Museum Learning Assistant. Her role is Mrs Storey, Preston Manor’s Victorian housekeeper in our educational session when children come to Preston Manor dressed as Victorian servants to find out about life working as a servant in the year 1897.
With a slight adaption of costume and with the addition of some ghoulish make-up Mrs Storey has become the housekeeper you would not want to meet on a dark night. Unless you are seeking the answer to the perennial question – is Preston Manor really haunted?
Preston Manor ghosts and the Victorians
I have spent many years researching the subject of the Preston Manor ghosts going back to when the house was a private family home. After their husband and father, Captain Macdonald died in1881, the Macdonald family women were landed with the problem of what to do with the ghosts that troubled them. Mother, Eleanor Macdonald and twin daughters Diana and Lily were disturbed by sightings of a mysterious White Lady who appeared and disappeared by walking through walls and by other unexplained paranormal phenomena. In search of answers séances were held to try to commune with the spirits. It was a popular activity with Victorian ladies in dark winter months when the nights were drawing in. Speaking with the undead felt like a good way to pass the time.
The families living at Preston Manor in the days before it became a museum in 1933 have left us with fabulously creepy stories telling their experience of living in a haunted house. What’s more, the hauntings never stopped, even to the present day, although the séances of the 1880s and 1890s were intended to lay the ghosts to rest.
These ghosts are now part of the Preston Manor collection. They were inherited from the last private owners, the Thomas-Stanfords who donated the house, contents and gardens and ghosts to the town of Brighton at their deaths in 1932.
Not everyone approves of the illogical subject of ghosts told as ‘real’ history. For me ghosts are welded to British history and are part of our national story and so have a place in museums and historic houses. Ghosts live in our imaginations in Shakespeare, in Dickens, at Halloween and at Christmas. What historic building does not have a ghost story and what visitor does not want to hear that story told?
The skills of the stand-up comedian
I often tell people that being a ghost tour guide can be likened to being a stand-up comedian. This is not because a ghost tour guide tells jokes but because you are a lone person standing in front of an audience who require something special from you. In the case of the comedian it is laughs. In the case of the ghost tour guide the requirement is fear or chills at the very least. Some of your audience will be receptive and ready to laugh or be chilled but some in your group will present ‘come on then, make me scared’ expressions on their faces. For a ghost tour guide this expression can be as scary as the stories they are about to reveal. Put in that position you really are alone, spot-lit on the stage. Make me Scared and Make me Laugh sit in the same zone. You are tapping into human and probably primeval emotions.
Taking a ghost tour in a historic house is completely different from guiding a group through the house on a traditional history tour with its set formula and script. After all, mysterious things can happen on a ghost tour when you have bravely opened that portal to The Other Side.
The stand-up comedian and the ghost tour guide are both story-tellers and both need the same set of story-telling skills. These will be natural skills that you are born with and have to hone that skill over the years. Some people can tell a great story, funny or scary and some people can’t. This is why a ghost tour guide is not a job anyone can do. I can provide a potential ghost tour guide with plenty of ghost stories to tell, but how that story is told is crucial to success. A comedy writer could provide a trainee stand-up comedian with plenty of jokes but delivery is all.
Taking a ghost tour hands you the tricky job of producing a fear response in your audience. I have seen people walk out of a ghost tour because they are too scared to continue. That’s surely a success. If a comedian has an audience member walk out it isn’t usually because he or she is too funny. People will stick around for great laughs. A walk-out in that instance is an indication of failure. Interestingly, a ghost tour guide can and even should occasionally use a little humour. An hour with an unrelentingly sombre ghost tour guide would not be a pleasant night out. If the ghost tour guide is too funny or too theatrical much can be lost regarding the stories told. Worse, everything the guide tells you will come across as a scripted dramatised theatre-act. There is a certain pitch to a successful ghost tour. Get it wrong either way and you’ve lost your audience and told an unconvincing tale.
Telling the truth
The crucial element is truth. I am ever-conscious of the ethics of declaring Preston Manor an authentic haunted house because of the requirement of museums to be places of the genuine article. You would not expect to visit a museum and see a fake artefact on display unless it was clearly labelled as a copy or a prop made for a specific and identified reason. The same must be so of ghosts. Over the years, I have been in search of the truth at Preston Manor and many years of on-going research has uncovered one absolute fact. Whichever way you interpret Preston Manor, whoever’s family story you tell, the house has ghosts running through it indelibly like the proverbial stick of Brighton rock and I write this as a sceptic. Bite a slice anywhere in Preston Manor’s long history and you will read the word HAUNTED.
I would like to thank the many ghost tour guides who have given their considerable skills to Preston Manor, and who continue to do so, bringing alive the histories of those who aren’t.
Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer Preston Manor